The Future Is Here, but Do News Media Companies See It? 'Traditional News Media Are Not Yet Willing to Adopt the Principals of the Environment in Which They Find Themselves.'

By Bowman, Shayne; Willis, Chris | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Future Is Here, but Do News Media Companies See It? 'Traditional News Media Are Not Yet Willing to Adopt the Principals of the Environment in Which They Find Themselves.'


Bowman, Shayne, Willis, Chris, Nieman Reports


The news industry is a resilient bunch. Newspapers, in particular, represent some of the United States's oldest and most respected companies. So far they have weathered storms of significant social, economic and technological change by figuring out how to transform themselves and what they produce. The creation of the telegraph, for example, had doomsayers frothing, but instead newspapers turned a disruptive technology into a tool for better reporting.

During periods of massive change, the death of the newspaper has always been greatly exaggerated. So given the industry's survival skills, why worry now? One reason might be that the burst of the dot-com bubble during the late '90's made many think they had overestimated the impact of the Internet. But in retrospect, the news media might have completely underestimated the influence of this new medium.

A Recipe for Radical Change

The Internet is a unique phenomenon that has delivered not just technological innovations but become a conduit for change, accelerating the rate, diversity and circulation of ideas. It affects nearly everything from culture to competition. It has also altered the economics of media in two important ways. First, it enables nearly limitless distribution of content for little or no cost. Second, it has potentially put everyone on the planet into the media business, including the sources, businesses, governments and communities newspapers cover.

Add other ingredients--easy-to-use, open-source publishing tools, a generation who finds it more natural to instant message someone than to call, a greater demand for niche information, and a rapidly growing shift of advertising dollars to online media--and you have a recipe for radical change in the news media landscape.

Likewise, the list of online competitors is seemingly ever expanding. Search giants, such as Yahoo!, MSN and Google, continue their expansion and encroachment into the news business, siphoning ad dollars and eyeballs from traditional media Web sites. Craigslist, Monster, eBay and countless others have taken a more direct bite out of newspaper's bread-and-butter, classifieds.

But the greater threat to the longevity of established news media might not be a future that's already arrived--it might be their inability to do anything about it. Bureaucratic inertia, hierarchical organizational structure, and a legacy mentality have paralyzed many news organizations from developing a meaningful strategy in this dynamic information age. And their real Achilles' heel might be what made media companies a favorite of Wall Street until recent years--an ability to consistently garner operating profits double that of your average Fortune 500 company. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2005 observed, "If older media sectors focus on profit-taking and stock price, they may do so at the expense of building the new technologies that are vital to the future. There are signs that that may be occurring."

Some have suggested that such behavior is a sign of an industry in a death spiral. Cost cutting with no investment for the future limits chances of an encore. Only a few exceedingly rare exceptions of online news operations are profitable, such as The Wall Street Journal, but most are still unwilling to engage in a different relationship with their audience.

In October, Bill Kovach, former New York Times editor, Nieman Foundation curator, and journalist for 43 years, told the Society of Professional Journalists Convention and National Journalism Conference that "... too many journalists, especially journalists of my generation, remain in a state of confusion about the challenges of the new media environment and remain dangerously passive about the opportunities presented to traditional journalism by the new communications technology."

Perhaps it's this simple: Traditional news media are not yet willing to adopt the principals of the environment in which they find themselves. …

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